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Opinion

Education in Wales is in crisis – can a new minister fix the problems?

23 Mar 2024 4 minute read
Finola Wilson from Impact Wales. Picture by Nick Morrish

Finola Wilson

Congratulations to Lynne Neagle, who has just become the ninth politician to hold the job of Wales’ education minister since devolution.

The Torfaen MS is taking over the role in Vaughan Gething’s cabinet from Jeremy Miles, who moves to the economy role after his failed leadership bid.

Unfortunately, the cabinet secretary for education, to give Ms Neagle her full title, starts her new job at a very difficult time, with an education system in dire straits.

Top of Ms Neagle’s inbox will be the recent report into education in Wales by the IFS, which outlined a series of “major challenges”, including low outcomes and high levels of inequality.

The findings of the report, while stark, won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the multiple crises facing the education system in Wales.

However, they are sure to be seized upon by certain elements of the tabloid press to embarrass the Labour party in the run-up to the UK general election.

Crisis

When Ms Neagle has read through the IFS report, she will quickly realise the scale of the task she faces.

It’s not an exaggeration to say education in Wales is in crisis. This is because:

  • There’s an ongoing funding crisis in local authorities, which has hit education budgets and left many schools struggling to balance the books.
  • Schools are still suffering from the fallout of the pandemic, particularly when it comes to attendance and behavioural issues.
  • The PISA results for Wales were dire, with the lowest scores ever recorded and the gap between the other UK nations widening.
  • The latest reading and numeracy test results showed reading standards of 7-14-year-olds have fallen since the pandemic.

The recent Estyn Chief Inspector’s Annual Report highlighted many of these problems, while also raising the issues providers face in recruiting teachers and support staff across specialisms.

Reassured

The impact Lynne Neagle can have on these issues remains to be seen, but educators will be reassured by her CV and her record.

She impressed in her stint as chair of the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee, and her tenacity in fighting for better support for children’s mental health won her many plaudits.

She’s also married to a previous education minister, former MS Huw Lewis, so she will no doubt be familiar with many of the challenges that come with the job.

So, what can the new cabinet secretary achieve? Wales needs a school system that is focused on the changes that need to be made for the best. These don’t have to involve huge changes or major policy reforms.

Many small changes can be made that will make a big difference, such as making sure the guidance given to teachers is evidence-informed and designed to make an impact in the classroom.

Self-congratulatory attitude

One thing that needs to stop is the self-congratulatory attitude that pervades the education system in Wales – if we just pat each other on the back all the time we’ll never improve.

The only explanation we can see for a continued positive rhetoric when the situation is anything but positive is because those in positions of responsibility need things to be okay for the sake of their careers.

We also need a cabinet secretary who is proactive and not reactive, and who is focused on taking the hard decisions that we elect our leaders to make, such as putting the brakes on when a policy clearly isn’t yielding the results Wales needs.

Lynne Neagle has the opportunity to do something positive. She does not have to carry on protecting the image of Welsh Labour above the needs of the children of Wales. We urge her to do the right thing and make the difficult decisions.

Finola Wilson is a Director of Impact Wales, an education company that works with schools and teachers across the UK and beyond.


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Linda Jones
Linda Jones
26 days ago

I wont hold my breath, Neagle does not have a great track record. Also, in my opinion, anyone with an ounce of integrity would not be supporting Gething in government given the apparent stitch up of the leadership contest and his dodgy donations/connections to criminality.

Llyn
Llyn
26 days ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

All the donations to Vaughan Gething were above board and broke no rules. If Vaughan Gething is connected to criminality, as you allege, please take your evidence to the Police.

Another Richard
Another Richard
26 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

If the donations broke no rules, we must question whether the rules are fit for purpose.

Llyn
Llyn
26 days ago

I agree. The are wrong and VG should not have taken the donation. But at the same time he is not connected to criminality and some of the reporting has been melodramatic and way over the top. The donation was from a company and company director from his own constituency.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
24 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

The donation to Gething is from criminal gains, Gething had tried to get toxic waste disposal standards lowered on a few occasions for the donor.
For the future the same donor is seeking to build a solar farm in Gethings constituency. Its a Council decision over which Gething will undoubtedly have much influence. In addition solar farms don’t make a profit, the main aim of the owner will be to secure public funds from the Senedd (Gething) to establish and run it. Watch that space.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
24 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

The issue is about ethics and decency not rules

Frank
Frank
26 days ago

I am 75 years old and I believe the standard of education in Cymru has fallen dramatically from when I was in school in the 50s and 60s. Discipline was maintained in both primary and grammar school and in my opinion stood us in good stead. I strongly believe that there is currently no lack of funds in financing a good education. Not providing good education results in ignorance just like government likes it so they can manipulate the masses without challenge. Keep them poor, ignorant and wanting is their motto.

Riki
Riki
26 days ago

Not until we start teaching our people our history, not a watered down Version the English decide upon. They wouldn’t dream of claiming the history and events that happened to Japan before Westerners arrived there hadn’t happened as they weren’t there to confirm them. They do it with us as they want to make us, and others believe we have no history.

Llyn
Llyn
26 days ago

The facts based curriculum in England appears to be providing results (see the IFS study). While the different focus in Wales and Scotland is not.

Annibendod
Annibendod
25 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

IFS is a right wing think tank. Don’t think of them as unbiased.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
25 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

Wales has problems in education as elsewhere. It also has poverty and under investment in most of its infrastructure. This is caused by hundreds of years being controlled by another country.
Wales has done well under these circumstances while having profit from our constructive wealth taken from us by the UK treasury.
When we can collect our own taxes, run our economy and education to suit Wales without political interference from outside Wales we will be much better.
Our education system, with our economy will have every chance of meeting EU standards.

Annibendod
Annibendod
25 days ago

There are a number of problems happening in confluence which are blighting the educational outcomes of Cymru’s young people. Don’t pay too much attention to the Right Wing IFS’s recent proclamations – poverty is without a shadow of a doubt a massive factor. It has a profound influence on the mindset of not only the pupil but of their family and close community on the value and purpose of education. Years ago in Wales, in working class communities, a culture existed wrt literacy and self-education. That culture no longer exists. People are now passive recipients of services, behaving as consumers… Read more »

Another Richard
Another Richard
25 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

Have you read the IFS report? It states that: “There are many areas of England with higher or similar levels of poverty to local areas in Wales, but which achieve significantly higher GCSE results for disadvantaged pupils, e.g. Liverpool, Gateshead and Barnsley.” Do you think poverty might affect children in England and Wales differently, leading to the greater variation in outcomes in Wales? Or do the problems lie with the Welsh curriculum?

Annibendod
Annibendod
25 days ago

Have you read up on the history of the IFS? Are you reading their report uncritically? Did you actually read my comment or are you just another bloke with an opinion?

Drew Anderson
Drew Anderson
24 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

“…the earlier Scottish reforms which are now being questioned in the light of the decline of Scottish Education’s performance…” Nothing in Scotland works; everything is in decline and it’s all that SNP’s fault? Perhaps if your sources are Anglo-British, with an agenda; maybe. However there are alternative sources of news: https://talkingupscotlandtwo.com/2023/12/10/gormless-guardian-writer-educated-at-st-hildas-college-knows-nothing-of-scottish-education-but-is-allowed-to-tell-us-what-went-wrong/ The negativity around all things Scottish, especially regarding the present Coalition government, is relentless. For example: an overall improvement in attainment, across all levels of society, is immediately seized upon as “a failure to close the attainment gap”. In other words, a good news story completely ignored and a… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
25 days ago

‘Education in Crisis’ yet 7 out of 10 cats supposedly thought he could lead the country…

Everybody change hats and off we go again…

Except for the obligatory cuckoo in the health nest…

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